Feature Articles

Law and Disorder during the Civil War

19 Oct 2022
Snipers hide behind wreckage in the streets of Dublin during the civil war in Ireland. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Violence and sectarian attacks accompanied the troubled birth of a new Ireland and typified the new Free State's early days, writes Dr Gemma Clark, University of Exeter 


In April 1920, a “Unionist”, R. F. Hibbert of Woodpart, Scarriff, County Clare, described growing disorder and “terrorism” in his neighbourhood, as the republican counter-state, Dáil Éireann, and its Irish Republican Army (IRA), wrested control of Ireland from Britain. For “respectable people” like Hibbert, by which he likely means not only the wealthy rural class, but also specifically Protestants and those loyal to British rule, “there is no protection whatever for life and property”:

I reported the raid on my house to the authorities, who sent down a small a detachment of infantry, but recalled them after about three weeks. The police were then withdrawn from Scarriff, and the barracks closed, leaving no police at all for a distance of over fifteen miles… As there are no police and no Petty Sessions [the court had also been attacked], there is no redress… From dark to dawn law-abiding people scarcely dare to sleep.

During this War of Independence against British police and armed forces, the IRA’s assassination of Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) personnel, and destruction of barracks, served well the weakening of colonial authority; 700 of the 1,300 barracks operational in January 1919 had closed by January 1921. Other strategic and propaganda victories for Irish republicanism, such as the burning of the last symbol of British civil administration in Ireland, the Custom House, in May 1921, brought the British Government to the negotiating table; Sinn Féin brokered the Truce, July 1921, that led to a Treaty (ratified by the Dáil in January 1922) and the transfer of power to the Provisional Government of a 26-county Irish Free State, a self-governing dominion within the Commonwealth.

Independence on these terms was anathema to anti-Treaty fighters loyal to the republic of Easter 1916. Civil War followed: holding out for full separation from the British Crown, the so-called Irregulars destroyed infrastructure and private property, undermining the ability of the new state – and its native police force – to protect its citizens from intimidation, theft, and harm. British demobilisation (evacuations of stations began in March 1922 and the final RIC men left Dublin in August 1922) – and a vacuum in the staffing and experience of the new Guards – left vulnerable to social and political violence not only representatives of the old regime, like Hibbert, but also anyone who, by even tacitly supporting the Free State, was seen as an enemy of the Irish republic.

When gangs of forty or more armed and masked men burned down “big houses”, we assume republican organisation and military logic. More of these Protestant and Unionist-owned mansions (199 compared to 76) were burned during the Civil War, 1922–23, than the earlier War of Independence; arguably a further and very public decolonisation of English culture was necessary, in the IRA’s eyes, because of the inadequate terms of the Treaty. Whether or not this routing of Planter privilege can also be interpreted as a sectarian purging of southern Irish Protestants is a controversial question still debated by historians.

Yet, in addition to dramatic spectacles of violence, the anti-Treaty IRA, with the help of the local community, also enforced campaigns of persecution against more lowly shopkeepers and farmers. In the town of Lismore, Co. Waterford, for example, Willie Roe’s grocers was an obvious target for provisions early in the war. Raids on Protestants businesses – by under-resourced republicans – may thus appear more sectarian than they really were. Yet Roe’s case leaves little room for doubt. An IRA order to clear out or be “shot at sight … and burned in your house” revealed the author’s wider ambitions: “We will clear all the Bloody Protestants out of this town also”.

The Census confirms a sizeable Protestant contingent in Lismore: Roe was one of only four Methodists in the district, in 1911, but 9% of Lismore’s population (of 2,402) were Protestants of all denominations, compared with a county-wide Protestant population of 5%. He was a member, then, of the small, but noticeable, Protestant communities in the towns that had “developed comparative prosperity”, in the words of the Church of Ireland Gazette, to be “considered ‘fair game’” once Civil War broke out. It’s important to note, though, that the physical threats against Roe weren’t followed through: he didn’t leave Lismore, but neither did he thrive in the new state. In a compensation claim to the British Government’s relief scheme for self-identified “loyalists”, Roe complained of boycotts: as late 1927, “the ‘anti-British’ sentiment is still a practical factor and influence in this neighbourhood … so that I have lost, and am now still losing, trade”.

Despite the sectarian language of the threats made against Roe, it’s interesting that he sees hostility against him in political rather than religious terms – as “anti-British”. This might simply indicate his familiarity with the language needed to secure compensation; but, during this period of transition from British rule, it’s also true that people held multiple and shifting identities (British, Irish, Unionist, Free State, republican, etc.) and there was no single motivating factor behind violence against civilians.

On the one hand, intimidation played a key role in the departure from the new state of somewhere between 2,000–16,000 Protestants whose leaving, according to historian Andy Bielenberg, can’t be attributed to economic or voluntary migration. On the other, boycotts and property damage also punished Catholics who had served Britain militarily, during World War I, for example, or made more innocuous displays of loyalty, such as selling goods and services to the RIC (and its auxiliary forces) prior to their evacuation. Resentment of religious and political minorities also intersected with land hunger.

By the time of the Civil War, the large estates of the Anglo-Irish elite were breaking up and most tenants had become owners via British land-purchase laws. However, legal mechanisms for redistribution (strengthened further by the Free State’s own 1923 Land Act) didn’t resolve all local rivalries over ownership and use of land. Middle-class graziers (who kept large pastures for cattle, rather than tillage) – and other farmers who’d recently or, as it was perceived, unfairly acquired their holdings – were targeted with cattle driving, animal maiming, and burning of crops and outhouses, to force them off their land. “What is the reason of attacking a poor man like me?” lamented David Horgan from Pallaskenry, near Kilcornan, Co. Limerick: “I have no quarrel with anybody and stand well with my neighbours. I am a Catholic. It is that these ruffians want to steal my land and divide it among themselves”.

So, while the new government hoped that legislation to settle the land question would also restore law and order, on the ground change was enacted by “a million and a half landless men”, who were “prepared to exercise their claims with gun and torch” (Minister for Agriculture, Patrick Hogan).

The Free State – like the British before it – struggled to counter challenges to its rule and protect the “life and property” of those loyal to the incumbent regime. But maintaining law and order was especially difficult in the context of internal war, when distinctions between combatant and civilian are harder to discern. During the end-stages of this ongoing Decade of Centenaries, new research focuses on those most affected by violence that transgresses public/private boundaries.

Women are caregivers and guardians of the domestic space in many societies and cultures; this traditional view became especially relevant in an independent Ireland that would, during subsequent decades of state consolidation, designate the home as a woman’s sphere (formalised explicitly in the 1937 Constitution). From sexual assault and forced haircutting of supposed Free State informers to social ostracism of RIC widows, Irishwomen suffered some serious and traumatising violence on account of their gender, that is, the prevalence during the Civil War of forms of aggression (raids, arson, property damage) that intrude in the home.

However, it’s also important to understand that the breakdown of law and order, in Ireland, did not unleash unrestrained brutality against civilians, as seen in contemporaneous Civil Wars (Russia, Finland), counterinsurgencies (Central Europe), and ethnic cleansing (Armenia, Greece and Turkey). It did not serve the strategy nor ideology of either pro- or anti-Treaty forces to denigrate women en masse; maintaining propriety militated against the need for sexual violence as warfare. The genocidal aims underlying conflict-related gender-based violence elsewhere in the world were also absent in Ireland, where gendered power structures, shored up by Catholic authority, remained largely unshaken by the Revolution – despite the great efforts of many radical females.

Intimate enemies know best how to hurt each other: while interstate wars have hardly been short of atrocities, there is an even stronger association between internal conflict and vicious violence. Thus, while conventional combat was relatively contained, and war deaths (1,500) low by comparative-international standards, it was arguably thousands of smaller and often non-lethal aggressions by and against civilians that left the most painful scars on Irish society. However, it’s also important to acknowledge the logics of violence in this context of constitutional change. As Ireland demilitarised following the independence struggle against Britain, the “everyday” violence that surfaced tells us much about the questions of concern (minority rights; decolonisation; land; gender) to this emerging and ultimately stable democracy.


Gemma Clark is Senior Lecturer in British and Irish History at the University of Exeter. Since her first book, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Gemma has published on sectarianism, gender-based violence, and arson, in outlets including The Irish TimesIrish Historical StudiesThe Atlas of the Irish Revolution, and Ireland 1922.


  – This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 – 



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